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Issue 37 - The PinesEdit

Xavier sensed the loss of presence inside the building and assumed that everyone was outside, in the back lot. Naturally that’s where they would go, since it was a change from the drab, enclosed scenery of the inside. Everyone else, save for Lina, must have been there.

He apologized about the bicycle Lina lost when he ran into her. She couldn’t have used that bicycle to save her life, because of all that lack of space. They had to lighten their load somehow, and she didn’t have much of a choice. He’d have promised her that there will be other chances. And Lina was easy to plead with.

He finds the lone fire emergency door, opens it, and steps out of it. He exits into the fresh air, mixing in with menthol smoke. Toni was nearby, leaning against the wall and smoking by himself. He notices Xavier and keeps on puffing, partly sensing his urgency and partly not hoping to offer him his pack. Xavier glances at him, and goes on his way.

He heads for the outer, more visible area of the lot, where much of the movement was occurring. He sees the two owners of the red pick-up truck from the far distance, moving busily behind it and carrying something that enlarged the barely visible pile. That pile was much smaller this morning if Xavier remembers correctly.

At a much closer distance to his left, he can see them. Paul, talking with Ellen, watching Ronnie play with his basketball. Ronnie's mother stood at a different spot, watching along with them. She had her signature notepad in hand, rifling through it while she watched Ronnie at the same time.

Xavier walks over to Shannon, catching a quick glance of Paul and Ellen on the way and noting what was about to unfold. She doesn’t notice him stop right beside her, as she was much too focused on her notepad. Xavier lets out a small cough, and Shannon looks beside her with slight nonchalance.

“What you got there?” Xavier asks, his eyes now on Ronnie, who was getting ready to throw his ball at an imaginary basket. The urgency of their conversation withered down half an hour ago, so Xavier’s not in any rush.

Shannon continues to flip through the pages of her notepad, keeping a concentrated expression on it. “Ron’s quote of the day… forgot where I wrote it…” She flips through two more pages and stops. “Ah.” She recites it in a murmur, and looks up to Ronnie.

“Ronnie,” she calls, and he stops bouncing his ball to face her. “Can you tell me the quote of the day today?”

Ronnie bounces it a few times and looks up in a wonder for a few seconds. Xavier folds his arms out of interest. “Uhm… it’s uh…” He bounces the ball a few more times and looks at it as if it had all the answers. “It was… it was ‘Never think that war, no matter how ness—n-necessar…” He struggles with the word, forcing him to put down his ball and roll it away.

“N-necessary, nor how justice—uh—fied is not a crime.” He looks at her mother with his curious innocence, then goes back to his ball. Xavier smirks at his efforts. It was impressive, coming from a boy his age.

“Not bad Ron,” Shannon replies. “But it’s ‘just-ee-fied.’ ‘Never think that war no matter how necessary, nor how justified, is not a crime.’” She gets a short, casual nod from Ronnie, and she looks over her paper again to confirm it. “Who quoted this, Ron?”

“Hemingway,” he replies right away. Xavier looks to Shannon, who was looking proudly at her son. “You do know he’s only ten, right?” he says, and he unfolds his arms. “And you makin’ him talk about war and shit?”

Shannon closes her notepad away and puts her hand down. “I’ve been doing this since he’s six… so he should know a least something from what he’s quoting by now.” They both watch as Ronnie goes from a quoting aficionado to a little child again. They’ve witnessed his growth for so long that they couldn’t help but admire Ronnie for a second.

But they had to face the matter at hand. Xavier straightens up a bit and opens his mouth. “You kn—” “I know, Xavier,” Shannon interrupts. “I know we got something to talk about. Me and those… walkers.” For a second there, she’d have forgotten about them. For a second, she was back to supervising Ronnie’s extra-curricular activities from their backyard.

But this wasn’t their backyard. It was once a public space, and now they were using it as refuge. From those things. Those things that caused the string of recent events.

“I’m not gonna get in your way. I’m gonna stay behind, with him.” She points to her son. “And I’ll protect him. If they get too close, that’s when I fight them. That’s… when I kill them.”

Xavier wanted to argue further. He wanted to let her know that she needed practice. But he knows his little sister. She’ll stick to her words no matter what, especially if they’re applying to her son. His nephew. Her undoubted insistence felt like a barrier he couldn’t walk through.

“You promise?” he asks. The only question he’s left with.

Shannon takes a second and nods, accompanying it with a “Yep.” An answer enough.

He continues to watch Ronnie for a few more seconds and decides to ball up his left hand. He displays it beside Shannon, waiting for a response. She notices it, and flicks it three times with her fingers. Xavier smirks, and walks away. Their little form of a promise, even after all these years.

He walks back to Toni’s direction, hoping to bug him for his cigarettes. It's been too long, and he feels like he can use some right about now.


It was probably about four o’clock, according to Julius. He was sitting against a corner of the storage unit, his bottom half wrapped by a half-section of the sleeping bag. On the other end was Alice, all curled up and snoring. The way she looked fast asleep, with her mouth slightly open, told Julius that she shouldn’t be woken up right now.

To their opposite side was Marina, wrapped up in her own sleeping bag and leaning against a corner much like himself. She, too, was sleeping, though in a more dignified manner than Alice. She’d have just slept out of nowhere after they had a brief conversation regarding the building, and how long it might’ve been abandoned. Alice soon followed suit, and soon enough, Julius was the only one awake. A man left to his own thoughts.

He thought this might’ve rooted back from this morning. He had ample sleep by the time they left. He can’t tell if these two girls did, but his question was being answered at that moment. Now they can’t take Paul’s advice of meeting everyone.

He felt tired, nonetheless. He could really use the rest, and some thinking to go along with it. He leans his head back against the wall.

His thoughts were numerous and went in different directions, but one thing did stand clear. This building, a group of people. They might have just met Marina yesterday, but she’s done so much for them already.

He always thinks about their safety, especially when Alice is around. He can't help but seek security if she's with him. It was a recurring goal in his mind, especially these days, when he discovered her to be alive after all.

His string of thoughts somehow led him to Alice. The girl that he ran into just in time. The girl he still loved, and lost. The ghost that lingered in his thoughts, dreams. The girl that would one day manifest when he least expect it.

He loves her more than he can imagine. And he hoped she did too.

Julius's eyes go heavy as his thoughts went deeper, and deeper. He'd recall the sophomore years he had with Alice. Their peak. The time he thought he wouldn't get sick of her.

They always liked to talk about everyday things, especially while he was waiting for his mom to pick him up. During that time, Alice couldn't stop talking about her love for movies.

The one with the gladiator guy named Maximus, the second Men in Black... she'd talk about any movie she can. And she'd stick with him, even if her friends kept calling her. She usually has time with them once he gets picked up, anyway. Her just making time for him was something he's always adored. Especially since he had fewer friends than her.

Then his mom would eventually arrive, and it would start their never-ending car ride. His mom, who was always an avid talker about what happened at work...

Her mom, the doctor. She would always drone on about her patients or co-workers and Julius would just find himself daydreaming, thinking of the movie for the next movie night...

And he'd get brought back to her attention when his mother brings up Alice herself. She never openly expressed it, often dropping hints here and there in the form of recitals of facts, but she feels like he can do better. That, and Alice wasn't Filipino. It was her eccentric request that he pairs himself up with someone from the same heritage.

Julius smiles, and he opens his eyes. He hadn't realized he dozed off. He looks beside him, confirms that Alice was real. And she was. She was still snoring, and just as he feared, she was starting to drool. He can still see it through this poor lighting.

He decides that it wouldn't hurt to nap. They might need it, after all. He closes his eyes back and resumes his thoughts...

For a second there, he missed his mom. His mom, the conservative Filipino lady that always pushed him to do good things. The woman that urged him to follow in her footsteps.

He opens his eyes back up. This was something he dreaded. They were gone, and he stopped thinking about them after all those weeks.

He nearly delves into it before stopping himself. He tries to go back to what he does best, and that was to repress it. He doesn't have time to deal with them right now, nor does he want to.

--------

“… I’m always the one that needs to wake him…” Julius opens his eyes at the sound, and sight of Alice. She was sitting down to his right side, while Marina, seeing him wake up as well, leaned against the part of the wall next to the unit’s sliding door.

“Good evening sleepyhead,” Alice greets. Julius exhales a bit deeply a few times and rubs his eyes. “Xavier told us to go downstairs. For the meeting.”

“How long was I asleep?” Julius asks, unraveling the sleeping bag that covered him and feeling a portion of his back ache.

“Don’t really know. We just woke up too.” That explains Alice’s hair returning to its nappiness again. Julius stretches his arms out, and attempts to stand up. The opened lights on their unit and the hall outside emphasized Alice’s time-of-day greeting to be an accurate one.


Their descend from the stairs and into the building’s first floor confirmed the time of day, for Julius. The entrance doors displayed the darkness outside, slightly brightened by the lights posted all over the parking lot. Him, Alice, and Marina head for the same building with the map, which was a short distance from the entrance. He dozed off longer than he imagined.

They were met with a multitude of new faces on their entrance. There were some small conversations between them, which slightly lowered when they stepped in. Julius tries to look for Paul and sees him in the seeming same spot from earlier, with the map laid out in the table.

“Ah, there you guys are,” he says, as a form of greeting, and it gets the attention of everyone else. “Guys…” Paul looks around the room. Apart from the familiar faces of Paul, Xavier, Toni, and Lina, there were four others the three weren’t familiar of.

“This is the group of people Xav brought with him.” He looks amongst the rest, and gives the stage to the trio. “Guys?”

“Oh, uh… I-I’m Julius. Julius Petero.” Julius points to himself, looking at the braid-haired woman and the elderly lady he remembers seeing from earlier.

“Alice,” Alice shortly follows. “And Marina,” Marina continues, being the loudest of the three. A collection of hi’s and waves come from the unfamiliar crowd.

“Shannon,” the middle-aged woman with dark skin and braids starts. She had a little boy below her, looking shyly away from them. “And this is Ronnie.” She accompanies this with a modest smirk. Julius quickly assumes that she was Paul’s wife just by the way she closely stood to his side.

Shannon looks onward to her right side.

“Oh I’m Ellen,” the elderly woman says, catching Shannon’s look with some delay. There was a small degree of rasp to her voice, and it somehow accompanied her silver-colored, neatly cut hairstyle.

“Howard Austino,” the man right next to her follows. He wore a trucker hat and had a bulky, stout figure. His skin, though pale, didn’t hold back the warmth of his jolly expression.

“Gary,” the other, pale-colored man next to him simply said. Unlike the other three, he seemed to look closer to the trio’s age. He was taller than Howard, but he was lacking the friendly, welcoming look about him.

“Alright… guess that about does it…” Paul scans around once more, and motions for Julius, Alice, and Marina to come closer. “C’mon, gotta discuss our plans for tomorrow…” Everyone, including the three, gather around the table, making sure they can see the map.

“Okay. So we’re… here.” Paul points to their current location, which was marked by a red circle. “And our target location is all the way over there.” He transfers his finger to another circle, with the name “Cornwall Pines” scribbled near it.

“You guys see this? All of this road we have to cover…?” Paul does a circling motion on the area between the two circles. All Julius could observe was the amount of names and lines. All he could see was how much driving they were probably going to do.

“We have two cars prepped already, and there’s plenty of room. Howard…” Paul turns to look at Howard, who was standing on one side of the table. “You guys have room, right? For Julius and them?”

Howard turns back to the map for a second, and answers with a “Yes.”

“Okay.” Paul surveys the map for a little bit more, and looks up to the trio. “We’ll be splitting up. I take them…” Paul motions over his shoulder, to Shannon, the boy, and Ellen. “… and Xavier. You guys—”

“Hold up, hold up…” Xavier interrupts. He stood right next to Paul. “Lina should go with you guys. I’ma go with them, help ‘em out with the clearing…” Xavier looks amongst the three.

“You sure about that?”

“Yeah. Might clear more ground that way…”

Paul partially covers his mouth with one hand to ponder it a bit. “Okay…” He surveys the map yet again, and turns at the trio. “Right, right… didn’t get to tell you guys. Xavier and Lina scouted the roads…” Lina, who was standing near the edge, in the front side to Julius and them, looked at Paul with a bit of seriousness.

“They spotted some walkers in that area. We need some able bodies to clear ‘em out… that’s where you guys come in.”

The seriousness from Lina gets shared to the three. “We don’t know how many there’ll be but just in case, we’re gonna need a group to fend them off…” Paul adds.

Julius nods, in response. The two girls beside him didn’t budge, instead keeping their looks.

“Ellen here… she’s the one who owns the mansion.” Ellen, who was observing the map the whole time, glances at the three with a bit of pride.

“Figured we group the ones that need protection the most. Me and—Lina are going to look after them.” Julius continues to nod, processing their role more and more. The only elderly woman and the family are their top priorities.

“They—they probably wandered off,” Lina says, to add some skepticism. She transfers her look to the three and adds “Might not be that bad.”

“Let’s hope,” Paul replies. A bit of chatter has grown from around the table, while Julius, Alice, and Marina continue to look at the map.

“What do you think?” Julius asks to Alice, adding to the chatter. Alice had her eyes on the table the whole time.

“We’ll see,” she says simply. She slowly folds her arms and keeps a straight expression at Julius. So far, he couldn’t tell if she’s objecting or not.

Marina, on the other hand, couldn’t keep her eyes off the map. She was even pointing at it, dragging her finger at a few places.

“What do you see?” Julius asks. It takes a bit of time for Marina to respond.

“This place looks… kinda familiar.” She straightens up, and looks at the two. “I don’t know. I might find some shortcuts but I kind of forgot…”

Either way, Julius was aware of his job. Their jobs. It sounded simple, but he’s yet to see. He can feel his anxiety creeping up a bit.

“By the way,” Paul says, tearing away from his chatter calling for the trio’s attention. “You guys need to see the vehicles we’re taking. Should do it now so you guys can get some sleep.”


Julius, Alice, and Marina were back to their storage unit not long after. Julius nearly forgot that Marina was “bunking” with them, being reminded of the empty unit to their opposite side. They were getting ready to sleep, with Marina fixing her bag and Julius and Alice looking over their own. What they hadn’t solved last time came back to them.

“Look at it,” Alice says. “Really just fits one person…” She and Julius look at each other, then back to the bag.

“We had a good arrangement earlier,” Julius suggests. “Why not just stick with that?”

Alice looks at him for a second, and shrugs. “Fair enough.” They both settle with the idea of Alice wrapping herself with the bag, while Julius uses part of it as his own blanket. Plus, he wasn’t feeling very sleepy from the lengthened, invigorating nap he had earlier.

Soon enough, each of them found their own respective positions, very similar from what they had earlier. Alice has put her boots aside, next to Marina’s shoes, and they were both wrapped in their bags. Marina was lying down a short distance away, between them and the sliding door. Julius, forgetting that he hasn’t closed to the lights and the door to go with it, unsettles himself from his wrappings. Unlike the girls, he was the one with shoes on.

He stands up, walks over to the switch, and flicks it closed. He takes a peek outside before tugging the sliding door closed.

The lights on the other units were closing, much like his. He can also see a few of the doors getting pulled down. He sways back inside, and closes the door, pulling it down completely at first then realizing the pitch black of the room. He pulls the door up slightly to leave a small sliver of light.

He turns around, catches a glimpse of Alice looking at him with her eyes half-closed, and rewraps himself up with a good portion of the sleeping bag. He greets the two a goodnight, and gets a quiet mutter from Alice.

“Night,” Marina follows, her response about ten seconds late.

--------

Julius knew he wasn’t going to sleep. He just didn’t feel it, even if he himself witnessed the night, and the breeze to go along with it. They went out of the lot for a few minutes, so Paul could show them the vehicles. Reassuringly, the cars had plenty of room for all of them; one was a red pick-up truck with an open trunk, while the other was a family-sized SUV. Julius could already tell which one they were going to ride.

His anxiety by this point has risen halfway. He could already feel it in his hands; the nervousness, the fear that something might, and will go wrong. He tries to process it a bit.

Being the more able-bodied, himself, Alice, and Marina are tasked to clear the way, if need be. He kept imagining a whole wall of them, but somehow that seems to switch to a scattered bunches. Either way, they need to face the dead, and they may need to pave a way for the vehicles to pass.

One thing that did put him at ease was their strength in numbers. Xavier and his fire axe was already something; he witnessed him fight with it, and he was fairly decent. Next was Toni, the former mobster, or at least that’s what he’s assuming. He kept rambling on about not having bullets, and Xavier mentioned once that he was a good shot. Julius is hoping he’s got the bullets tomorrow.

Then there were the two others. Howard, and Gary. He couldn’t tell much about Gary since he likes standing in the back, but he looks able-bodied enough, like them. Howard, on the other hand, might have a little trouble; it wasn’t his weight, but the way his skin was so pale, he might have been ill with something. Still, Julius is yet to see.

He somehow felt excited for what was coming tomorrow. It was like waking up at dusk to prepare for a supposed trip, like a vacation, or a road trip of some sort.

Those days when he was about ten, and Margaret was only about a few inches taller than him. They were young, and yet he couldn’t help but feel the same feeling…

His parents were still there. Still alive, still young. And they were still the clueless family, with a Hispanic father and Filipino mother, trying their best to live a good American life—

A sting of confusion, bearing hints of grief, suddenly hit Julius. He was just trying to forget about this, and now it crept up on him.

He doesn’t want to face it. Not now, not for a while. Ever since he saw that fully functioning family, Paul, Shannon, and their boy… it was a walking reminder. It entailed all of the things he left behind, things he thought he could let go—

“Julius,” Alice whispers. His train of thought sidetracks and he quickly focuses in on her.

“Julius, you awake?”

Alice’s call for attention was just the push Julius needed to think his thoughts away. Pieces were left here and there, but he was letting it go.

He can see her looking at him, her eyes a little bit closed, even in this poor lighting.

“Yeah,” he whispers back. He quietly sighs and scratches his forehead.

Alice shuffles inside the sleeping bag a bit, trying to get an ideal position. But after a moment of fruitless effort, and a somewhat entertained Julius, she gives up.

“The ground is so flat,” she mutters. “No, the bag is too warm.” She shuffles a bit more and finally decides to unwrap the sleeping bag off of her. She slips out of it, and assumes a seated position much like Julius.

“I shouldn’t have napped.” She fixes her hair, somehow straightening it in just a few strokes.

Even through the darkness, the two find each others’ eyes. Alice looks at Julius, while he looks at her.

“Julius I just want you to know that I—”

Somehow, this chain of words in Alice’s part alarms Julius a bit. Like she was about to say something.

“That I love someone else.”

Julius furrows his eyebrows a bit. The room was far too quiet for him to have an outrageous expression—

“I love… your jacket.”

Julius’s eyebrows doesn’t change. He does a half-hearted sigh, with a mix of a chuckle somewhere in there.

“What the hell are you talking about?” For a second there, Alice wasn’t kidding. But he sensed it halfway through her confession. She tends to play with him when he least expect it.

“Your jacket.” She tries to edge closer as quiet as she can, though she couldn’t stop the sound of moving fabric. She stops near his shoulder, and starts feeling on the collar of his hood. “Where’d you get this?”

“Scavenged it at a warehouse—what the hell was that?” Julius couldn’t help his volume at this point, always glancing at Marina to see if they’re bothering her in any way. She was still the same, with her back turned against them, fully wrapped in the bag.

“I was kidding, gosh.” She continues to feel on his collar but gets sick of it. Instead, she huddles closer to him and rests her head on his shoulder. “You know I… you.”

“You… what me?”

“The word. The thing.”

“Say it.”

No.

“Say it…”

“Shhh, Marina’s sleeping.”

Marina turns her head around and looks at them, squinting. “Whatever you guys are about to do please don’t—”

Julius and Alice look at each other. Alice’s embarrassment prompts her to scoff and pull away from him, slipping into her own corner.

“Sorry Marina,” Julius pleads, apologetically. “Definitely not what you were thinking.”

Marina pauses, rubbing one eye and looking between the two.

--------

She could tell just from Julius’s expression alone that what she thought was not what they intended. Either way, she barely knew these two, and she’s fully aware of how “madly in love” they are, so she’s wary. Yet Alice has already chosen to sit away…

She rubs her eyes, and says “Sorry,” in a lazy, somewhat hoarse voice.

“Great job. You woke her up—” Alice says. Julius looks between her and Marina.

“I’m—I’m sorry, Marina, I just couldn’t sleep…”

“Yeah and I can’t either,” Alice adds. “You look like you had a better time than us.”

In reality, Marina just had her eyes closed. She was relaxing, but was in no way sleeping.

“I…” Marina yawns. “I wasn’t.” She decides to follow their lead and shuffles out of her sleeping bag, assuming a seated position like them. She tries to stretch both her arms subtly so as to not look too ridiculous in front of both of them.

“Man, we shouldn’t have napped…” Alice says. “Now we’re gonna be tired once we leave tomorrow…”

They all quiet down at the same time, thinking of what was to come. But then they decide that they couldn’t help it.

“Marina.”

Marina turns to look at Alice, who was calling her name in a whisper.

“How old are you?”

And so it begins. Marina has already fallen to their trap, and now she was being ensnared. But she’s already believed these two weren’t bad people. In love, yes, but very friendly.

“N-nineteen.”

Alice, in response, looks at her, and does a delayed nod. “I’m twenty-two. Julius is four-hundred years old.” Marina turns to Julius, smirking, and Julius looks at Alice weirdly.

“She’s dumb. I’m actually a month younger than her. Twenty-one.” Still, Alice looks proudly at him.

Marina didn’t know what so say, so she responds with a nod. She tries to recall how she met Cara, a notable friend…

She was actually the one that approached her. That, and she was the only other girl of their group. It was only fitting.

“You’re from Giza, right?” Alice continues. This catches Marina off-guard, mostly at the thought of changing subjects, with that of origin, especially. How did Alice know she was middle-eastern?

“N-no. Pakistan. Khairpur to be exact.” She didn’t need to mention that second part. And yet, she did. To satiate Alice’s knowledge. That, and she was nice. And she had nice hair…

“Oh, Pakistani… I see.” Julius was learning just as much. The two look at each other.

She never imagined how soon they warmed up to her, and her to them. She has to reciprocate this, somehow. Even if it takes a while.

“Did you live here? In Portola?” Julius asks, after a brief moment of silence.

“N-no. I didn’t r-really live here. We lived in Palo Alto.” Palo Alto, where Stanford was located. The school she always strived to attend, but never had the chance…

She didn’t want to think about that now, because she was too caught up in this. Talking in the dark, because they’re unable to sleep. She wanted to believe this is how roommates function.


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